Bareback Biking

Our journey would be recorded. We could see the headlines already: “Transport for London freezes bicycle hiring after moon-worshippers break lockdown rules.” We had no recourse to anonymity. No stolen keys, no fake documents, no Villanelle kickass moves, just really cool outfits that rarely anyone saw any more. Citymapper tells me that the ride from Haggerston to Barbican takes 12 minutes at 2:17am. There is no traffic. No, this is not like any other night when you can say that and it means something specific. “There is no traffic” would have meant that you were not stuck in the rain with people of different shapes and sizes huddled under a poorly sheltered bus stop. That you were not waiting, impatiently looking beyond the interminable rows of cars for your bus number, too anxious to notice the dozens of window wipers moving left and right to the slow rhythm of engines, the fumes, the handbrake noises, all carriage click-clacking between neutral and first gear in a very dysfunctional parade, breaking and clutching, on repeat. Cyclists whizzing between the lanes, through the fumes with their masks, zigzagging, avoiding the motorbikes, the pedestrians who clumsily run across the street when the traffic lights are about to turn green, the aubergine that rolled out of the street market stand and onto the road, right there by the pavement of the bus stop with fourteen other bodies completely indifferent to what is otherwise a synaesthetic experience that all the technique and trickery of Dziga Vertov could not fully capture.

No traffic used to mean that the journey from A to B didn’t make you bite your nails, scratch your face and rub your eyes, look at your phone incessantly for alternative routes, light another cigarette, because the bus arrives every time you decide to light a cigarette, even in the rain. Now it means just that: no traffic. No cars. No bicycles. No humans. Sometimes, no noise, save for a couple of double-decker buses every few minutes looking like rusty gigantic souvenir magnets floating around from a London we once knew. The clinical LED lights on the top deck glared outwards like radiation from some forgotten passenger carriage in a sci-fi film. There was nothing in them, nothing but the ghosts of late-night debauchery, memories of drunken trips, lost keys and phones and those text messages that you should never have sent. We waved at the bus drivers and they flashed their headlights back at us. It’s the first time in my life that I have greeted a bus driver while walking down the street.

We were startled by some movement and rustling that came out of a bush. A scruffy ginger cat. A cat is always a good sign, ginger’s even better. We leaned over and gave him what he needed, all five fingers sinking into his back, fur in electric delight, he laid on the floor and opened his belly to us by the gate of one of those Edwardian houses sardined together. Giggling at the spring needs of this pussy we noticed a sign attached to the gate of a house that read:

PLEASE DO NOT STROKE THE CATS! IT CAN LIVE ON YOUR HANDS & THEIR FUR! THANK YOU.

That very morning we had come across the British Veterinary Association’s post that “There is no evidence that animals can pass the disease to humans.” What counts as animal in this case? We thought about writing the BVA message on a piece of paper and attaching it next to the sign for the owner to confront. We thought about all the information we’d been reading about bats and civet cats and pangolins. We thought that we should compose a series of statements about animals and string them across the rail with all their contradictions on display and perhaps hang a bird feeder somewhere nearby too for the cat to entertain itself since it cannot be stroked.

There is very good evidence to think animals are the reservoir and the way the disease gets started.

COVID-19 is a zoonosis, a human disease of animal origin.

There are no known zoonotic (harmful to humans) coronaviruses found in UK bats.

It is humans that transmit COVID-19 to other humans, not bats.

SARS-CoV-2 (2) has been found in a single species of bat (Rhinolophus affinis) in China.

Chickens, pigs and ducks are not likely to catch the virus.

Dogs are not really susceptible to the infection.

We banked this idea in the ever-expanding list of lockdown activities that will later compose yet another archive of immaterialized projects. A list in the present that somehow carries a future within itself, even if the word “project” has lost all its professional gravity, unable to attract the type of interest that once made people attentive to such keywords in the hopes that they would plug into their own utilitarian desires. Right now, we had more important business to attend to. At 2:17 am, beside the park with metal props longing to be touched, every single one of the bicycles was docked, waiting for us to conduct our “essential” travel to Barbican. We inserted the bike key and with an Atari-like beep an unlocking sound was made that was so magnified it was like the “Access Granted” scene in Charlie’s Angels (2000). I lowered the seat, hoisted my skirt up and sat on it, my panty-less cunt and thighs making contact with the gel-like cushioning protruding out of my crotch. I recalled the email from Transport for London that morning:

We’re cleaning the service daily with anti-viral fluid, including the screen, payment device, docking point numbers and bike handlebars. Although the cleaning fluid kills viruses and bacteria on application and retains effectiveness at killing any viruses it contacts for up to 30 days, we’d recommend you wash your hands before and after hiring a bike.

I didn’t wash my hands before gripping the handlebars. I imagined the mysterious anti-viral fluid conducting a microscopic Ju-Jitsu on my flesh. I wondered if there was someone in a room full of monitors waiting for the precise moment when a red button somewhere on a console starts to flash as an indication of unusual lockdown activity. Aren’t we always monitored? Or is that just what they want us to believe? That’s what they told us when the CCTV went up around our estate – “For Residents’ Safety.” They wanted us to feel special, that we were being cared for. That the CCTV is for us law-abiding residents and not the rabble of students and teachers, keyworkers and bankers, grandparents and children, junkies and dealers, Europeans and Africans, artists and figuring-it-out people or people who will never figure it out, that make up the 102 flats on a hectare of land in Dalston. The cameras made our next-door dealer’s life even more creative, while we discovered new deposits of fear that we thought our adolescence had long since defeated. That same fear is ever-so-present now. It bears a bitter-sweet familiarity. Like buying alcohol when you were too young according to either law or convention.

I don’t know exactly what rules we were breaking, but doing this, cycling, bareback, no masks, no gloves, fists around the bars, flesh rubbing up and down the saddle, so late at night, bore the mark of adolescent transgressions. The silence, the amplified noise of pedalling, noticing the tall buildings around us (when did that happen) with most of their lights still on, being able to breathe without holding your breath through smog – damn this breathless city and the years it took from me. Look at all this space, this openness, this energy circulating uninterrupted. I felt the wetness between my legs moistening the saddle and I laughed out loud thinking about the next person’s butt rubbing against this exact same spot absorbing my pleasure. I hoped they too would notice how handsome London is but that they wouldn’t fall into the trap. Tonight, London feels like an abusive lover that you bump into years later and you remember exactly what it was that made you fall in love with them in the first place. The sparkle in their mysterious smile and their confident posture that you would slowly come to hate when other people remarked how wonderful and charming they are. People who had no idea what it was like indoors, what it was like to feel weak, sometimes worthless, occasionally crazy, but always unfree.

This lover seems to be waiting, giving you the silent treatment, when in fact, they are calculating their next move. It’s not the first time that they have begged you to take them back, and after many break-ups, you know that each time it just gets worse. London will not change. They will become more terrifying in their manipulative strategies to isolate you, to cram you into ever tighter spaces and make up excuses about why this is necessary, to ensure your economic dependence on them and then tell you that your debt is due to you not working hard enough even when you are already working 60 hours a week. They will use every means possible – evictions, redevelopments, gentrification, rent hikes – to push your friends out until they are too far away to visit you, or they will ensure your days and nights are so preoccupied with survival that you don’t have time to visit anyone. Abuse happens gradually, small cuts here and there, barely noticeable at first, until a massive EXIT strategy is presented as a logical action to solidify your already fractured relationship. You can’t believe what’s happening and while you’re trying to make sense of it all, your friends have already left.

We arrived at Barbican, slamming the bikes into their locking docks with a combination of mischief and exhilaration. Tonight we can see clearly. Now that all the seductive traits of London’s artifice are no longer able to ensnare us, now that we finally have a little time and a lot of outdoor space, our shoulders have straightened out, our once-shallow breaths fill up all of our lungs, pressing against the cage of our torso, feeling once again that we have a torso, that we have a body, a sensual palpitating moist composition of bacteria and fluids circulating in perfect harmony and potential danger. What is there to risk any more when this city has left us with so little? It took a global pandemic to get us to tune into the small pleasures of existence, breathing, immersing our hands in the soil, sitting in the park when we are not allowed to sit down, cycling at 2:17 am to Smithfield market for an “essential” crate of strawberries so that we can make jam for the first time. Yes, it’s exactly what the final break-up feels like, you know, when a few weeks have passed and there is a moment when you start to feel the tiny particles of an unknown but exciting future swirling inside you once again. You imagine yourself, months later, waking up in another place, still adjusting to being single or in a happy relationship, occasionally looking over your shoulder (out of habit rather than fear), wondering how you once had ended up so unrecognizable to yourself. You start to notice that there are aspects of yourself that are becoming familiar to you again and that you perhaps even like. Cycling, or making jam, will remind you of who you are in that way that you like. On some rare occasions the fear you had once known, will be awakened by completely random and unrelated events – like a sad peanut bowl on a table or a black coat hanging off a chair – but it will be hard to discern if it is fear or excitement when it is all mixed up with the many other thrills you experienced on empty streets and forgotten cities. You will not have much, but at least, you will be free. Sometimes, you will even forget to wear panties. The last thing you will remember from those days, would be the large billboards that read, “Please believe these days will pass.”

About Diana Georgiou

Diana Georgiou is a writer and curator based in London. Her most recent co-curated project ‘EcoFutures’ focused on the ongoing ecological and environmental crisis from a queer, feminist and decolonial perspective and brought together 70 artists, activists and theorists, across 7 venues with the support of 10 partner organizations. She has curated exhibitions and public programmes in London for Furtherfield Gallery, ICA, Showroom Gallery, Guest Projects and Peltz Gallery amongst others. Georgiou holds a PhD in Visual Culture from Goldsmiths, University of London, offering an innovative account of the relationship between art-writing, ethics and subjectivity through the lens of feminist theories. Attentive to the sonic resonances of language, her textual work also takes the form of recorded sound poetry and performative live readings which she has performed at Showroom Gallery (London) and Centrespace Gallery (Dundee).

Diana Georgiou is a writer and curator based in London. Her most recent co-curated project ‘EcoFutures’ focused on the ongoing ecological and environmental crisis from a queer, feminist and decolonial perspective and brought together 70 artists, activists and theorists, across 7 venues with the support of 10 partner organizations. She has curated exhibitions and public programmes in London for Furtherfield Gallery, ICA, Showroom Gallery, Guest Projects and Peltz Gallery amongst others. Georgiou holds a PhD in Visual Culture from Goldsmiths, University of London, offering an innovative account of the relationship between art-writing, ethics and subjectivity through the lens of feminist theories. Attentive to the sonic resonances of language, her textual work also takes the form of recorded sound poetry and performative live readings which she has performed at Showroom Gallery (London) and Centrespace Gallery (Dundee).

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